How to become a Master Interviewer. Ten Commandments of a Music Journalist

Interviewing is one of the most elementary techniques in any kind of journalism. But chatting face-to-face in a professional capacity to a celebrity might actually be rocket science from time to time. Some inexperienced journalists get star struck whilst it is a nerve-racking experience for others. Thankfully, as most things in life, this valuable skill can be mastered with lots of practice and good advice.

So, for the sake of all you music journalism newbies, we have collected the most useful tips to help you navigate the tricky world of direct interviewing.

Here they are: tested, verified and reviewed by both professional journalists and musicians representing different genres.

1. THOU SHALL THINK TWICE ABOUT EVERY QUESTION

Speech comes to us more naturally than writing. A face-to-face conversation is much more genuine than a phone interview – seeing the other person’s body language and facial expressions truly helps. And you are more likely to receive candid and unrehearsed responses. Plus, as one rock celebrity pointed out, “things don’t get lost in translation like they do in text from time to time”. So yes, musicians do prefer this kind of interaction. But it also means that you only get one chance to ask them something and they only have one chance to reply to it. It is your job to ensure that it is a win-win situation for both parties.

For instance, take the innocent silly questions, like asking group members: “Do you guys like being in a band?”. Yeah, it’s happened to most of us at some point. You’ll learn to filter your thoughts better with experience.

Then come the slightly embarrassing questions. One of the musicians we’ve asked for help writing this article mentioned this one: “What’s the name of your first single?” Well, you should have researched that, shouldn’t you? It saves both sides a lot of time and embarrassment when you know your ABCs. 

“Do you think your new album is better than the one before?”

Did you seriously just ask that???

Both music celebrities and music journalists agree that the worst category ever are the unfair questions, for example (and not to be repeated!): “Do you think your new album is better than the one before?”. Did you seriously just ask that??? Put yourself in the artist’s shoes. If they answer yes, it suggests they think their previous album was crap. If they reply no, it kind of implies they’re not happy with their newborn baby. Need we say anymore?

2. THOU SHALL LEARN TO LISTEN

It should be obvious that you – the interviewer – are there just to facilitate the whole process. Yet, some folks get a bit ahead of themselves and tell their life stories introducing the actual questions. We’ve all been there. Especially when you find yourself in one of these 3 scenarios:

  • the music celebrity you’re interviewing is cool and easygoing and it feels like talking to a friend or
  • it’s the exact opposite: your interviewee for whatever reason does not seem to engage very well so you feel obligated to fill the space or
  • you’re a naturally born chatterbox.

Either way, stay away from that trap. 

Studies done for job interviews show that a healthy balance between recruiters and candidates talking should be 20% to 80%*. In other words: “Less is more” for the person asking questions. “The same principle can be applied to interviewing musicians,” according to some of the professional journalists we have interviewed.

Bottom line is: let them talk. Which means that 80% of the interview time you should spend listening. This is your one and (maybe) only chance to get that info from them. And remember this: fans and groupies want to find out about their life, their career and their favourite milkshake flavour – not yours!

80% of the interview time you should spend listening

3. THOU SHALL NOT GET TOO PERSONAL

Let’s face the facts: there are some questions journalists love but celebrities hate. For various reasons.

As a rule, when it comes to off-limits topics, two things are for certain: personal life and family. Don’t go there. Period. Family life is private, even if you are the so-called “public figure”. Imagine someone started digging in your personal affairs or dragging your kids into a messy story.

Secondly, everyone has things they’ve never told their mother about. Who doesn’t love a good gossip! You do and we do. But experienced music journalists emphasize that “some skeletons should really stay in the closet, no matter how tempting it is to bring them to life”. It is not in your job description to ruin someone’s life and/or career (and yours for that matter).

Unless they start talking about it. The trick is to get as much personal information as you can without being overly eager. Probing tactfully is okay as long as you know the limit. You will probably burn yourself a few times but Rome wasn’t built in a day, either. 

(…) some skeletons should really stay in the closet (…)

4. THOU SHALL NOT GET MIXED UP IN POLITICS

There is another topic that often leads to uncharted waters. More and more musicians nowadays express their political views, either through their music or supporting causes or certain organisations. And they might be proud to elaborate on their involvement or stance. “If you’re interviewing Billie Joe Armstrong about the lyrics on the Revolution Radio album, he’s going to touch upon politics, guaranteed. Because this is what Green Day and punk rock music is about,” summarised a music journalist from an American publication. But it’s hardly ever a good idea to spend too much time on it. After all, you’re not interviewing them for Huffington Post but a music magazine – your focus is slightly different. Otherwise, we seriously doubt groupies are looking forward to reading yet another anti-Trump tirade.

“If you’re interviewing Billie Joe Armstrong about the lyrics on the Revolution Radio album, he’s going to touch upon politics, guaranteed.”

5. THOU SHALL NOT IGNORE THE CLOCK

Time is money. For you, your publication and – most importantly – the music celebrity you’re interviewing. Trust us, there are tons of other places they’d rather be at that moment in time.

An adult’s concentration and attention span is about 20 minutes, according to research**. And if you’re a busy artist, that figure is probably even lower. Sounds like not enough time? Then compare it to this statistic: an average conversational speed falls between 110-150 wpm (words per minute), depending on how fast one talks***. That’s a loooot of information to exchange. Our advice: use your time wisely. 

An adult’s concentration span is about 20 mins

                                                                                                 

Then comes the next dilemma: How many questions are too many? In reality external factors will determine that for you. First and foremost, you’ll most likely be limited by the time slot allocated to you by the celebrity’s publicist. Knowing that in advance, you can figure out how many questions approximately you can fit in the time given. This is also where you’re prioritizing skills come into play. You might need to sacrifice some topics for the ones that absolutely must be covered. The length will depend on their level of interaction and engagement as well. If you hit home, they can be talking forever about just one topic. “If you only have 5 minutes, don’t ask Bono about Greenpeace,” a source close to the musician revealed. The occasion plays an important role, too. Naturally, you’re not going to go on for hours if you’re interviewing a band right after a 2,5-hour gig when they gave it their all.

To summarise: if they’re dedicating their precious time to talk to you, make it worth their (and your) while.

6. THOU SHALL NOT BE BORING

Famous musicians have probably heard it all before. Asking something new or original is mission impossible. This is precisely the time to deploy your MacGyver skills and get a little witty.

Quite a few celebrities have told us they want to be asked a bit more about their creative process. Not just the influences but how a song or album comes to life. Inquire about any hidden codes or guilty pleasures incorporated in their music. Maybe they often mention a certain name in their lyrics. Or recall places, colours, smells. This is hardly ever a coincidence. A lot of our colleagues – music journalists confirm that “they [musicians] have plenty of stories up their sleeves and many appreciate you discovering that code”. After all, their creative process is exactly the one thing that makes artists stand out. And if they don’t want to reveal any details? Well, that’s life and you’ll just have to swallow it this time.

Musicians want to be asked

a bit more about their creative process

And – believe it or not – some of the biggest stars actually prepare for interviews. Yes, you’ve heard it correctly. They do give some thought to what they will say. This is also the reason why many times you’ll have to submit your questions in advance.  Do your homework right so that they do theirs with equally matched effort.

Last but not least, celebrities are music fans, too. They have their favourite bands, songs, albums. They are inspired by others. Find out how being a performing artist has changed their perception of music. Do they listen to music the way they used to before? Asking smart questions and showing genuine interest in what and how they do you might be in for a real treat. 

7. THOU SHALL NOT COMPLICATE THINGS

“We were once interviewed in the woods.

I don’t even know why we had to go there.”

Have you ever seen James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke? It’s pretty cool, right? But in the pursuit of originality, we sometimes completely lose it. “We were once interviewed in the woods. I don’t even know why we had to go there,” one of the bands told us. Exactly. Whatever happened to catching up in the studio… Not all the places that sound cool at first are suitable for interviewing. Doesn’t it suck big time when the 2-hour chat you’ve just had with the music celebrity of your dreams is nothing more than white noise on the voice recorder?

Plus, in case of bands, the question always arises: do we want to have all of them in the room? “The more, the merrier,” you could say. Well, it doesn’t always work like that. We hate to break it down to you but who participates in the interview is not your decision most of the time. After all, the frontman is the frontman for a reason – he interacts the best with fans and/or press. And there’s always that one band member who just looks pretty in the photo shoots. So, if you wanted to talk to the shy drummer but got the chatty bassist instead, embrace your luck. It’s called politics and diplomacy and people pay good money to learn it at school.

8. THOU SHALL RESPECT YOUR OPPONENT

Sometimes, interviewing might be compared to a battlefield. You throw a question at them and they either ditch it, throw it back at you or engage in the battle. What you’re hoping to achieve is quality engagement.

It’s obviously easier if you’re talking to a musician that you know, respect and are a fan of yourself. You will naturally tend to be more enthusiastic which – hopefully – will motivate them to be the same way. “But never forget that you’re not there to make friends. Even if you’ve always wanted to hang out with Katy Perry in a fancy hotel sipping margaritas,” our editor-in-chief brought us back to earth. 

Some music celebrities are easier, some more difficult to get on your side. Well, if you don’t like Kanye West’s lyrics and rhymes, subconsciously you might be a little disconnected which can influence his attitude. But then you remind yourself again: you’re not a groupie – you’re there in a professional capacity to get a job done. Give your speaker the benefit of the doubt. In the end you might be leaving the room totally surprised by what a nice dude Kanye really is.

No matter how hostile or unapproachable the artist might be,

you just “kill’em with kindness”.

Rarely (and hopefully very, very rarely) the interview might feel like deep coal mining. In other words, you’d rather have all your wisdom teeth pulled out with no anesthesia than interview a certain musician. So what do you do? The same thing you’d do in the Katy Perry scenario. You prepare, rehearse and do your very best to conduct the interview like a pro music journalist that you aspire to be one day. Respect for the human beings we interact with is often overlooked but it’s one of those basic principles you should definitely incorporate in your work. No matter how hostile or unapproachable the artist might be, you just “kill’em with kindness”.

On a brighter note, musicians are professionals, too. They’ve done an interview or two in their lives. They will suck it up. And so should you.

9. THOU SHALL BE THYSELF

Trust is built on being honest and authentic.

There’s a saying that goes like this: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” True story. Every artist has their favourite interviewer or someone they’d like to be interviewed by one day. Stephen Colbert and James Corden make the top of the list for many celebrities because of their unique styles. But you’re not them. So maybe don’t copy the Carpool Karaoke idea? Being you is good enough if you are comfortable, professional and empathetic towards the celebrity you’re interviewing. After conducting a few more or less successful interviews, one of our music journalism interns summed it up like this: “It feels sooooo good to sit across an artist you respect and who respects you back in return.” Trust is built on being honest and authentic. And it’s the only way to build your own name brand, too.  

10. THERE IS NO NUMBER TEN BUT HERE’S A SPIN-OFF SHOCKER FOR YOU

Women tend to dig deeper

We’ve been told there apparently is a difference between female and male music journalists (!!!) Women tend to dig deeper and ask more profound questions. They will want to know the reasons behind the song order on the album or what events the artwork was inspired by. No, we’re not telling you to change your sex. But next time you’re preparing to conduct an interview, in addition to following the nine commandments above, ask your female colleague to double-check your work. Billie Joe Armstrong, Kanye West and Bono – you have been warned 🙂

*https://hiring.monster.com/hr/hr-best-practices/recruiting-hiring-advice/interviewing-candidates/job-interview-process.aspx

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